Ten Low Review: Thoughtful space western - SciFiNow

Ten Low Review: Thoughtful space western

We review Stark Holborn’s intense space adventure, Ten Low.

Ten Low

Ten Low follows the eponymous character as she atones for a series of undisclosed sins, earned from her time as a soldier of the ‘Free Limits’ when they resisted the unstoppable empire of ‘The Accord’.

Finding herself on the losing side of a bloody rebellion, The Accord now governs the knowable universe and Ten Low spends her days wandering the desert of an edge planet known as Factus. Although technically under the rule and governance of the Accord, it would seem the Accord has forgotten about Factus, leaving it to cling onto existence without support. Its inhabitants are the outcasts of society, living in a lawless desert that respects its own religious traditions over the new world order. Essentially, you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy (unless, of course, you’ve seen Star Wars).

The story kicks off as Low comes to the rescue of a downed Accord spaceship, finding a child, Gabriella Ortiz as the sole survivor. Ortiz however, is not a normal child, but a genetically modified child soldier. More competent, more passionate and more deadly than any regular soldier, Ortiz has earned the rank of general and an uneasy truce is struck for Low to return her to health and deliver her back into the hands of the Accord. Doing so will involve the treacherous navigation of a hostile planet in a bid to get the general off world and Low must discover how truly committed she is to serving her penance, by saving the life of her sworn enemy.

Ten Low occupies an unusual space on the bookshelf. Not quite the full-fledged space opera, yet definitely more intricate than the running, jumping, shooting action thriller the blurb sets you up to expect. What sets the book apart is author Stark Holborn’s introduction of the ‘Ifs’ – mythical semi-religious deities that operate in the shadows of the world and clawing at the edges of characters’ sanity.

The ‘Ifs’ are an unexplained yet understood force that seem to act as manipulators of chance, predicting and guiding Low through her journey to an inevitable fate. Low’s reverence and fear of the Ifs borrow from the stories of ancient Greek gods, playing with the fate of man and is a perfect way to reinforce the sense of dread and judgement that haunts Low.

The oppressive guilt that burdens Low throughout the story is well placed and well managed. The self-imposed punishment persistently robs the character of any moral victory she achieves. Yet this is not a dour book. The pace of the story helps to bolster the sense of dramatic adventure and excitement of heroic deeds. Holborn does well to introduce a roster of roguish companions for Low and Ortiz to band with, warranting the book’s comparisons to space-piratey sci-fi favourite, Firefly. There is a thoughtfulness to the inclusivity and variety of non-conformist characters that litter the story and they are smartly introduced in a way that encourages sensitive normalisation. Low is a resilient and formidable heroine, her inspiring confidence delicately juxtaposed with a barely perceived veil of vulnerability lurking beneath the surface.

There’s a strange Australian/British imperialism sub-text going on that gives the story an uncomfortably familiar and relevant edge. The imposition of colonial ideals that steamroll through worlds it could never understand leaves fertile ground for the development of a complex cast. Tortured heroes often make for the most endearing leads, and Ten Low is certainly tortured. Unfortunately, while some characters have staying power, many are left undeveloped.

However, it is the unexplained yet understood inscrutability that inhabits this world that really keeps you engaged. Holborn has crafted a surprisingly cohesive, bad-ass space western full of adventure, tragedy and terror, that still manages to handle its mission with relentless fun.

Ten Low by Stark Holborn is out now from Titan Books.